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To reach net zero, correct the failures in the housing market

We will only reduce emissions if we build energy efficient homes (Prospect's housing report is kindly sponsored by RICS, Sovereign Housing, Atkins and the Building Societies Association)

By Mike Hedges  

Klaus Ohlenschl�ger/DPA/PA Images

We know that we are facing a climate crisis and that, unless we take urgent action, the consequences will be catastrophic. We will face large-scale species extinction and more areas of the planet will become unable to sustain life.

One of the ways to reduce carbon emission is to reduce and then eliminate the carbon emissions from houses.

The Welsh Government is required to reduce emissions by 80 per cent by 2050—and challenging targets like these need challenging solutions. Reducing the amount of energy we use in our homes will substantially accelerate progress towards these goals.

Achieving the targets will require a considerable broadening of ambition. I have called on the Welsh government to bring forward a ten-year low-carbon housing strategy, including milestones and targets.

The recent publication of Planning Policy Wales for consultation indicates that the Welsh government has recognised that low carbon development starts at the design stage. The document emphasises the principles of integrating employment, housing and transport policies to reduce the need for residents to travel and to promote active travel—walking, cycling.

However, to meet the challenge of delivering zero carbon housing on a large scale, the Welsh government must address the failure of the housing market to provide enough energy efficient, affordable homes.

There are few large-scale housebuilders and there is little incentive for them to offer more than the minimum standard required by building regulations. We are told that housebuilders will respond to customer demand, and the lack of energy efficient housing is evidence of a current lack of demand.

However, this misrepresents how the housing market works. There is, in effect, little or no choice for most consumers in terms of energy efficiency. Housebuilders have said that changes to building regulations will lead to fewer houses being built in Wales. However, low carbon homes are crucial to delivering the government’s own climate change reduction targets. Delivering low carbon homes for all needs more input from government. The government must not shy away from using building regulations to deliver a much higher standard of energy efficiency.

Housing Associations and local authorities in Wales are responsible for building social housing stock. The Welsh government has the powers at its disposal to make sure these houses are highly energy efficient, and should support housing associations and local authorities in their drive to encourage the development of new homes.

Tackling the existing housing stock will deliver the greatest return on investment—80 per cent of the homes we will be living in in by 2050 have already been built. We have the oldest housing stock in Europe and only by ensuring that these colder, older homes are fit for purpose for the transition to low carbon living can we meet our climate change mitigation targets.

Since 2007, the Welsh government has spent considerable sums on schemes targeted at the most vulnerable householders, in order to alleviate fuel poverty. This spending has not only reduced fuel poverty but has had wider benefits.

To have the necessary impact, retrofitting must be done at scale. The Welsh government must make it appealing for the 84 per cent of owner-occupiers to invest in energy-saving technology in the same way that they might update a kitchen or bathroom.

This should involve financial incentives, and should start with a promotional campaign to educate homeowners on the benefits of making their homes more energy efficient. This is a recommendation from the UK Committee on Climate Change, which can be taken forward in Wales at once.

Private rented accommodation should be no less energy efficient for tenants than social housing in Wales. There should be a long-term objective to bring standards in the private rented sector in line with those applying to social housing.

The aim should be as follows. All houses counted as “in fuel poverty” in Wales should be rendered zero carbon. All newly-built houses in Wales should be built to zero carbon standards. Government must devise a planning and building system with low carbon and energy efficiency at their centres, and that are supported by rigorous, independent inspection regimes.

And crucially, we need a fully-trained workforce, ready to construct and improve homes using the latest technologies. The job is great, but the consequences of ignoring it are greater still.

Read the new housing supplement in full

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